Education

Venture Philanthropy’s Policy Influence

The emergence of venture philanthropy and new policy networks wrestles away educational expertise from colleges of education and educators placing it instead in the hands of business, advocacy, and law experts (Scott, 2009).  Scott (2009) posits their arguments around frustration with the slow pace of growth of charter schools that are closing the achievement gap, specifically for racial minorities.  Arguing the charter school movement will ultimately improve public schools as well, groups like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are aggressively investing time and money into private programs, think tanks, and schools.  The Gates Foundation is particularly influential donating over eighty million dollars nationally (Dillon, 2007).  Funding a variety of research grants, school choice organizations, and foundations such as The New Schools Venture Fund, the Gates Foundation shapes federal policy to the point where Dianne Ravitch (2006) regarded Bill Gates as the country’s true superintendent.

The Turnaround Challenge: Why America’s best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst-performing schools, by the Gates Foundation funded Mass Insight Education and Research (MIER), I argue, both influences federal language and perpetuates the claim that public schools are a failure.  According to the report:

The state must not only support the capacity of outside providers to assist with turnaround (or lead the process); it must create the structures and policies necessary to ensure that single providers act as systems integrators, coordinating the roles and contributions of other collaborating partners (see the graphic on page 85). Turnaround partners can include non-profit and for profit organizations, professional associations, and colleges and universities. In addition, an important role of any partner serving the “systems integrator” role in turnaround schools is establishing strong connections with social service providers and agencies, which tend to play strong, visible roles in the communities served by chronically under-performing schools. (Mass Insight, 2007, p. 78)

One of the key provisions of the MIER report is the concept of a high-poverty, high-performance (HPHP) zone that schools can theoretically create.  The report concedes that, “There are very few HPHP schools and they are likely to mitigate, but not erase, the effects of poverty” (MI, 2007, p. 26).  Despite this concession, the report proposes it can identify the “DNA” of these schools thus making it replicable at “scale”.  It continues by outlining nine, deficit based “risk-factors” of poverty.  Risk-factors are turned into “design-elements” for systemic change that will lead to increased performance on standardized tests.  The report believes public schools have been ineffectual because the reforms have been too mild and therefore not able to affect student growth.  Page 29 reads, “Poverty’s Force Comes in Three Mutually-Reinforcing Forms” and labels students of poverty and their families “at-risk” over a striking graphic of a hurricane approaching the Eastern Seaboard.

The 100 page “supplement” to this 116 page report includes an entire section on poverty titled Poverty’s “Perfect Storm” Impact on Learning and the Implications for School Design: Three Colliding Factors = A Hurricane of Challenges (MI b, 2007, p. 74).  The message MIER is sending is clear.  Schools have failed to address any of the nine factors outlined and therefore need more radical approaches from outside of the school system, what MIER terms “whole school reform”.  Additionally, the use of the hurricane metaphor subliminally reinforces two false claims. First, that poverty is a natural disaster rather than a result of social and class construction.  Second, it reinforces the crisis motif that continues to permeate the discussion of school reform with RTT today.  MIER positions the HPHP model as a “New-World” model departing from the “Old-World” model:  “HPHP schools do not try to solve the problem of poverty, nor do they use it as an excuse for lower achievement. They do respond with innovative strategies that acknowledge and address the daily disturbances caused by student mobility, learning deficits, disruptive behavior, neighborhood crises, and a host of other poverty related circumstances. They start with the premise that their students can learn at a high standard, and then they do whatever is necessary to remove barriers to learning as well as create new paths for students to pursue achievement” (MI, 2007 p. 30). Not only does MI promote their strategy as “New” and thus progressive, but also then position their critics as in opposition to progress through maintaining the status-quo.

While acknowledging poverty creates circumstances that disturb learning, MIER asserts HPHP schools remove barriers to learning without actually addressing problem of poverty.  These new paths for students to pursue achievement, admittedly circumvent the root cause yet simultaneously reinforce the rhetoric that “Old-World” schools both fail to address poverty, and also use poverty to excuse their failure.  According to Thomas (2011) addressing only the achievement gap serves to further script and narrow the child’s school experience.  Rather than using the classroom to create agents of social change it is actually these “New-World” ideas that serve to protect the status quo of structural and class inequalities (Thomas, 2011).

Examination of the MIER report’s authors and contributors finds broad ideological underpinnings that make for unlikely partnerships.  The compelling discourses contained in the report appear to come from a strikingly divers group of people and organizations.  Three of the reports four authors have experience in consulting and business backgrounds.  One author studied education history at Oxford and is an expert in standards-based curriculum.  The contributors include managers, consultants, private and public business leaders, private and public college professors, think tanks with both conservative and liberal leanings, economists, public officials from SEA’s, state governors, and middle and High School administrators.  Broad political, market, and advocacy forces have aligned behind this report and others like it propelling the growth of charter schools and choice movements along with shaping the federal mandates of RTT.

… Schools serving the disadvantaged have far more pressure to improve performance than more affluent neighborhoods with less minority presence. The current community based resource model, even with supplementary funding from SIGs and RTT, inhibit access to a meaningful education experience for students born into poverty (Thomas, 2011). Housing discrimination is highly linked to educational outcomes. Segregated housing linked to segregated schools diminishes minority’s achievement (Orfield, 2013). Even when schools are integrated, reliance on standardized achievement test outcomes stratify students resulting in tracts (Thomas, 2011). Typically white students are found in the upper academic AP classes where they find lower student to teacher ratios, the most capable teachers with regard to content knowledge, and richer curriculum (Thomas, 2011). Title I schools and lower academic tracts become narrow test prep academies where typically novice teachers adopt strategies from academic coaches known to increase aggregate performance on particular tested learning objectives. The resulting narrowed curriculum adversely limits the scope and depth of curriculum minority students come into contact with and additionally, creates resistance in the students based on less authentic relationships with their teachers. According to Tienken and Zhao, (2013) in effort to meet AYP goals, schools serving minority students engage in many counterproductive measures to raise test scores that actually serve to widen the educational opportunity gap with respect to their white peers.

In particular school choice is increasingly stratifying the racial makeup of schools. Research suggests strong evidence that color blind school choice initiatives have increased racial segregation in the US (Scott & Wells, 2013). These schools tend to have longer hours, strict behavioral standards, contractual obligations for families and dress codes (Scott, 2009). These groups not only limit enrollment through these measures but influence attrition with strict discipline policies (Scott, 2009). Public schools however are bound to serve each student yet there is no flexibility in comparing achievement outcomes.

SIGs and RTT serve to provide cultural masking of inequity, promoting myths of freedom and equality through school choice and common core standards. Business interests continue to shape education policy, reaping the benefits of a workforce customized to their liking without paying their share of taxes. The think tanks and philanthropies people like Bill Gates support become tax shelters ensuring business does not pay their share. These groups then influence policy as seen in MIER (2007) exploiting the equity gap that exists in schools to promote a diverse cadre of goals.

Ultimately minority students will continue to suffer from poverty and inequality while think-tanks and the FDOE publish reports about the progress of a few HPHP schools. We will miss yet another chance to move from a scripted classroom experience for minority students, to an authentically situated individual experience where students become agents of social change in the classroom. Children of color can then enact a new social vision rather than continue to be enacted upon by those with power and money claiming to see well. As the UNESCO (2014) report proposes, we cannot create sustainable changes unless we change our actions and thinking. By continuing to rely of standardized test scores and the influence of business and policy entrepreneurs the education reform movement changes neither. RTT and SIGs do little to enact agency at the local school level and continue to splinter and marginalize young minority children while purporting to be their saving grace.

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